Benjamin Andrew explores Rodolpe Delaunay’s exhibition, a cosmology presented by The Institute of Contemporary Art Baltimore at Current Gallery, 421 North Howard Street.
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, lived from 1623 to 1673; today she survives in a storefront gallery in downtown Baltimore. Well, not exactly, but printed copies of her poem Of the Attraction of the Sun are stacked on a small pedestal in French artist Rodolphe Delaunay’s exhibition of the same name at Current through June 16th, and her work is key to deciphering Delaunay’s intellectually labyrinthine exhibition. The poem provides a fascinating perspective on the artwork scattered throughout the gallery.
First, a historical introduction: by all accounts, Cavendish should have lived a placid life as Maid of Honor to an English Queen, but after the First English Civil War, Cavendish grew restless. As an expat in France, she was prolific; she wrote prose, poetry, philosophy, plays, and scientific research papers. The critical literature on Cavendish suggests that she was continually fascinated with the workings of the physical world, but that her scientific pursuits offered no clear answers, often exploring scientific ideas through philosophy, poetry, and creative writing. This mix of aesthetic and scientific writing was dismissed by many of her (male) peers, who occasionally accused her of madness. A similarly subjective interpretation of science is at the core of Delaunay’s exhibition; the artist echoes Cavendish’s legacy by subtly manipulating found objects to explore hidden universes within the mundane.
Immediately within the gallery’s doors, a pedestal offers the stack of copies of Cavendish’s poem. Set in an antique font on letter-sized cardstock, the poem is a heartfelt description of light’s passage from the sun to an earthbound reflective surface—arcane scientific terms rhymed in old english.
On the reverse side of the poem, there is a checklist of Delaunay’s artwork. Without this checklist, I would have been utterly lost examining Delaunay’s exhibition. The checklist corresponds to a map of the gallery, but one without walls. The map’s numbered dots float on an empty sheet of paper akin to the blankness of the gallery’s walls.
The exhibition includes a mix of small objects, but the space is largely empty. I was surprised by how stark Current’s gallery had become; a temporary wall placed in front of the storefront window contributed to making the room feel a bit more like a sterile white-cube gallery than the usual homey artist-den.
With the map as my guide, I found Delay – a few candles leaning low against the wall – and the checklist informed me that the candles had once been lit for eight minutes and nineteen seconds, or “approximately the time for the sunlight to reach the Earth.” As I imagined Delaunay burning the candles with stopwatch in hand, the candles struck me as a rather poetic meditation on time and celestial distance, but the gesture was only completed with the accompanying explanatory text. Without it, the candles are just candles.
The precise burning of Delay seemed like an intensely personal action within the void of a mostly empty gallery. Returning to the star chart map on the back of Cavendish’s poem, I transcribed the white expanse of the paper map onto the walls of the gallery, turning the room’s modest artworks into planets among a creative vacuum. The idea of the white cube as a cosmic void is a terrific spin on the geography of the art gallery, and one that allows the viewer to don the exciting role of astronomer, examining Delaunay’s art as points of celestial interest within an expanse of white walls.
Central to the gallery’s solar system are The Poles, two circles of ground-up pain relievers on the gallery’s hard floor. The powder is ephemeral and delicate. For Delaunay, round pills seem to echo the spherical shapes that make up the universe. Pills also seem to allude to altered states and drug-induced dreams. But these hints at narrative are quiet.
On Gravity is a reproduction of a painting of a woman throwing a ball up into the air, but Delaunay hangs the painting upside down so that the ball’s movement follows the inescapable pull of gravity. The attentive visitor to the Baltimore Museum of Art might recognize the painting as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s Knucklebones (1734), but it is presented here without credit, like some unknown treasure from a vault. On Gravity fits well alongside the glistening wine glasses; jocularly titled Seismometer, the wine glasses wait patiently for an earthquake or planetary disturbance to fulfill their purpose. Both pieces are cheap copies of valuable treasures that still manage to bring to mind the delicate instruments of astronomy.
Dominating the space of the gallery is a grainy video, Event Horizon, which shows a pair of hands turning and fidgeting with an empty coffee cup, muddy grounds stuck to its bottom. This footage is of a professional ‘coffee reading’ and it is periodically overlaid with long strings of numbers at the bottom of the frame. The numbers are apparently the coordinates of known black holes, their precision contrasted with the vague joojoo of fortune telling. Like most of the work here, Event Horizon seems bland and unimpressive by itself, but fits into Delaunay’s larger project of building a mental playground within the gallery.
With gallery map still firm in hand, I found myself unable to locate the first work on the list: Of the Attraction of the Sun (Sundial). It is easy enough to miss. High above the entrance to the gallery, it elegantly protrudes from the building’s façade. A ball-tipped cane that would usually be used by a blind person to navigate is here fixed horizontally to cast a shadow across the grime of the building. Below the cane, an array of pockmarks, screw holes and other urban damage seem like an astral chart.
This sundial sculpture has a kind of humor reminiscent of Maurizo Cattelan, but subtler and more demure. Cattlan’s cartoonish interventions frequently protrude from architecture, such as Untitled (2007), in which Cattelan displayed a taxidermied horse protruding from a gallery wall. Cattelan’s more understated installation of stuffed pigeons at the Venice Biennale, Turisti (1997), could be a precedent to Delaunay’s own appropriation of an item from the urban landscape. These examples challenge viewers with the unusual placement of a familiar object, hoping to disrupt the oblivious march of the average pedestrian.
Why a blind cane placed just so? By creating a sundial, Delaunay ascribes an invisible notation to the random marks and decay on the wall, but the result could be interpreted as little more than an odd flagpole—if the passing pedestrian even happens to look up and spot it.
Of the Attraction to the Sun is undoubtedly tied together by Delaunay’s own system of understanding, but the work is so dry and conceptually focused that I find myself wondering if many people would take the time to unpack Delaunay’s puzzles. Is the work meant for the denizens of Howard street walking by, or for visitors from the city’s colleges and universities?
At its best, the style Delaunay works in can offer sublime recontextualizations of everyday objects. Recall Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ synchronized clocks in Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991). But even the best of this kind of work can stir anger in viewers who feel alienated by artwork that is produced simply. I can sympathize with confused visitors to Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The Lights Going on and Off (2000), in which the lights go on and off again in an empty white room. Thankfully Delaunay not only offers viewers the access point of Cavendish’s heartfelt poem, but has symbolically gestured towards the neighborhood and the people surrounding the gallery with his makeshift sundial. The inanimate salute is enough to make me consider the urban sprawl of the city in relation to the work inside.
If one thing can be gleaned from Delaunay’s peculiar science and conceptual whimsy, it is that the smallest of details can contain the cosmos. The constellation of Delaunay’s mental puzzles are connected by systems alternately scientific and random. A complete exploration of these puzzles may require a better navigator than myself. The manipulated objects in Of the Attraction of the Sun feel to me like pious offerings to a lonely science. Like Cavendish’s science, Delaunay’s is an attempt to explore the complex interactions of the material world through aesthetic means. Every navigator will find their own readings of Delaunay’s quizzical conflations of the banal and the cosmic. The question is whether or not Delaunay’s ordinary found objects can accrue enough poetic power to move us.
Benjamin Andrew earned his MFA from the Mount Royal School of Art at Maryland Institute College of Art. His thesis project, The Chronoecology Corps, addresses ecological crisis through participation, humor, and journalistic research. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Civin teaches at MICA and is an advisor for The Institute of Contemporary Art Baltimore. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.